5 of the Most Spectacular Trails for Budget Travel in South America

Written by: Steph Dyson

Got a hankering for exploring South America but not sure whether your pennies will stretch that far? Worry not; travel here may be pricier than in South East Asia, but it is possible to adventure through its wild landscapes and historical sites without spending too much cash.

These five trips prove that you can travel South America on a budget without it being any less spectacular.

1. Chile: Hitchhike the Carretera Austral

Hitchhike Chile's Carretera Austral on a budget

Patagonia is one of the most expensive areas of South America to visit for backpackers, but there is a way of seeing the Chilean Patagonia’s wealth of ancient forests, epic hanging glaciers, natural hot springs and active volcanoes: a dedo.

Chilean for ‘hitchhiking’, the best place to travel a dedo is along the Carretera Austral; Chile’s best (and only) Patagonian road. What’s more, this form of travel lends itself to a shoestring budget and is such a normal form of transport in Chile that during the southern hemisphere’s summer months, the Carretera Austral is packed with backpackers and locals alike, all thumbing a lift.

To make the most of this unique but safe mode of travel, pack a tent, sleeping bag and a sense of adventure. Start at Puerto Montt and hitchhike all 770-miles of road using the generosity of locals and other tourists. Aside from food, if you camp along the way this trip should cost you a grand total of nada.

2. Bolivia: Get your fill of wildlife with an Amazon tour from Rurrenabaque

Meet a Capuchin monkey in South America

Opportunities abound to chatter with a Capuchin monkey or get licked by stingless bees in any one of the nine countries home to the Amazon Rainforest. But the dusty streets of Rurrenabaque in the northern lowlands of Bolivia are the best for backpacking South America on a shoestring.

From the shores of the town, motorized canoes glide along the Beni River to comfortable lodges deep in the jungle. Here, with the help of your guide you can explore the trails that weave through dense forest, while the deep rumble of wild boar and the elusive footsteps of the jaguar become the soundtrack to your adventure.

The biggest problem for backpackers who come to Rurrenabaque is the temptation of the insanely cheap jungle tours; some of which start at as little as £50 for three days. Before you pick, just remember that by paying less, you’re guaranteeing a lower wage for your guides and are more likely to be supporting a company with little interest in protecting this fragile ecosystem. Ethical agencies, where the focus is on environmental sustainability rather than profit, charge from £140 for two days.

3. Ecuador: Trek through remote countryside on the Quilotoa Loop

Lake Quilotoa, Ecuador

Ecuador is a highlight of any trip to South America, but while the Galapagos Islands receive their fair share of tourists, and the pretty colonial streets of the capital Quito are always swarming with backpackers, Ecuador’s rural areas receive far less footfall.

Although it’s tempting to always book yourself onto a tour, meet some like-minded travellers and go DIY by self-guiding around the three-to-five-day Quilotoa Loop that meanders through the Ecuadorian countryside. Magical scenery is your reward en route: rolling hills and plunging valleys, both dotted with indigenous Quechua communities where life continues as it has for centuries. At the end of the fifth day, the hike culminates in the beautiful turquoise waters of Lake Quilotoa – a volcanic crater lake which locals believe has no bottom.

You can find tours in Quito from around £250, but most travellers instead go solo, taking a bus to Latacunga for the beginning of the route. Clearly marked trails and a whole host of decent (and cheap) hostels located in every village you pass through mean that, by going self-guided, you’ll be spending more in the region of £80.

4. Colombia: Re-discover the Lost City

Budget Backpacking to Ciudad Perdida in Colombia

Although Machu Picchu has staked its claim as South America’s most iconic archaeological site, the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) in Colombia is actually over 650 years older than its Peruvian rival. ‘Discovered’ in 1975, it’s only following the stabilising of the political situation of the region in the last decade that it has become an essential part of a South American trip.

Perched high in the dense jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the very north of Colombia, the remote stone terraces of the Lost City are reached via an adventurous 14-mile trek through barely-penetrable rainforest. Thought to have once been home to an estimated 10,000 people, nowadays you’ll encounter the refreshing waters of tumbling rivers and swarms of butterflies rather than other humans.

Organized tours with authorized agencies are the only way of hiking to the Lost City, so scope out the offerings of companies in nearby Santa Marta. You’ll find prices starting at £240 for five days, including all meals and accommodation; just make sure you bring sturdy walking boots and mosquito repellent.

5. Peru: Float down the Amazon to Iquitos

Iquitos, Peru on a budget backpacking trip

If you’ve not had your fill of the jungle in Bolivia, sling up your hammock on the top deck of a cargo boat at the Peruvian port town of Yurimaguas in the north east of Peru. From here, you can make your journey towards Iquitos – one of the largest cities in the world only reachable by river or air. For many backpackers, this is the pinnacle of their adventures in South America as it offers the experience of travelling by a unique form of ‘local’ transport.

Ships with small cabins and whole floors purely for hammocks leave when full from Yurimaguas. Thisthree-day journey can cost as little as £35 including food – just make sure you bring your own plates and cutlery. To keep their belongings safe, some backpackers rent a cabin, but half the fun is sleeping on deck and being rocked to sleep by the hum of the Amazon and the whistles of playful pink river dolphins as you float deep into the jungle.

Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she’s made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur

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